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Advice for cultivating more impactful collaborations with university administrators.

To push more successfully for change, make your own way, and preserve your sanity at your university, you need to tactically build your network. You need a good mentor and connections with peers outside of your home unit. You need to support your unit’s staff person. You also need an associate dean, or AD.

What does your AD have that you want? Institutional savvy, diverse programmatic experience, a lot of contacts, and a modest amount of funds. ADs package problems for deans to solve: retentions, HR troubles, course controversies, and the like. We can advocate for you throughout the administration hierarchy, and we have a small discretionary budget to support initiatives in our areas. We also make allocation decisions after college budget priorities have been decided, see through promotion cases advanced by departments, recruit chairs, and oversee compliance and reporting matters.

Building a successful relationship with your AD can help you navigate the university system, gain an ally in your creative work and teaching duties, and open up opportunities. At the same time, your AD will receive a needed reality check, seeing the campus through your eyes. Below are some tips for how to bolster your AD collaboration efforts.

Do make contact. Ask your AD to introduce an event, judge student presentations in your class, come to lunch or dinner with a speaker, or share their career story with your advisees. Be thoughtful about the connection you are making between your work and their profile. You will need to be inventive, but there will always be an authentic connection (otherwise they would not be your AD).

Don’t approach an AD to start a program in your area. You may well represent a new field that has been elevated to the level of a center or curriculum focus on other campuses. If you think there is a place on your campus to invest in your work, you (and others) need to start it and then show your AD how interesting it is and how quickly it is catching on. Then the AD can back it. If asked to put the pieces together on their own or provide the funding to start the program, the AD will put it at the bottom of the “to do” list. They will turn instead to help other colleagues who have already started their programs.

Do ask for things. You are more real to your AD when you have launched a project or program that works, has a constituency, and now needs money or space or more of your time to realize its promise. Nine times out of ten, the AD will still say “no” when you ask, but the idea will stick and they will act as your scout. This scouting can result in modest support coming your way. On the flip side, your adopted AD will then offer you a pitch to see if your venture might be repackaged to fit some new strategic priority. Nine times out of ten, you will say “no.” But now you have a conversation going on.

Don’t make your case in moral terms. When you do pitch yourself or your ideas to your AD, don’t make a moral argument. It is not that you don’t have a moral case. Your work really will enhance equity, serve neglected communities, redress historical harm, or move the institution closer to a value that matters. But so will all the other requests being made to the AD. The moral appeal must be set aside for the ask so that more practical factors can be evaluated. Also, posing a request in moral terms sets up your AD’s likely “no” as evidence of their moral failing. Accusations of moral vacuity are just one more reason why a weary AD really looks forward to the end of a workday.

Do have the numbers. When asking for programmatic support, be detailed, factual, and quantitative in your request. How many students will be involved? How often have your colleagues had course releases for similar service work? What are the trends in enrollments? What did the last community project receive? Numbers do not have to be big, but they do have to be present. Numbers quickly clarify the other cases by which your case can be assessed and give a snapshot of sustainable models that affirm the premise of your request. Also, remember, your AD doesn’t have the money. They need to persuade others, and the first thing the others will ask for are the numbers.

Don’t create more work for your AD. If you are bringing a pressing problem to your AD, bring some possible solutions too. Even if they are not workable, you create good will. And keep anything written to one page. As with much proposal writing, you will win or lose your case in the first paragraph. If you write too much, your AD will have to write a precis to pass on to others and they will feel put-upon. They are not looking for additional homework.

Don’t get your AD to do your chair’s job. It is not just that your AD is too busy: your chair is your tactical partner. They are the ones formally responsible for your career while also ensuring the smooth work of staff, course schedules, and service in the department. If that is not going well, the chair needs to fix it. Never go around your chair and directly to your AD. The AD supports the chair, who supports you, so if there is something awry in the department, the AD needs to address it by working with the chair to put things back on track. And, needless to say, ADs are not in a position to seek special deals for you. Please don’t ask.

Do bring your new friends on campus to meet your AD. ADs get isolated and out of touch. Once you form a good working relationship, they will use you endlessly as the example of “what faculty think” and “what faculty need.” That gets old, though. And limiting. Introduce other colleagues to keep things interesting and relevant.

Credit: Adopt-a-Highway by formulanone, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, and modified
Photograph of a road sign, modified to read "adopt-a-dean" instead of "adopt-a-highway"
Adopt-a-Highway sign, modified to promote dean adoption.

It is important to also keep in mind knowledge bequeathed in Introduction to Anthropology: kinship and adoption are shaped by joking and avoidance relationships. Joking relationships are common with the senior generation—grandparents, great aunts and uncles—who can tease and pass on wisdom. Avoidance relationships are common with parents, uncles, and aunts who have the burden of discipline, marriages, and managing property. When you adopt your AD, you are entering into a joking relationship. They are not there to discipline you and they do not have property to give, but they are rich in advice. ADs are an ally who will help you see farther across campus and deeper into institutional possibilities. Plus, they are sprouting like mushrooms. You might as well collect one.

Author’s note: The tips in this piece were originally presented during a panel session held at the Association of Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA) business meeting during the 2022 AAA Annual Meeting. My thanks to Ilana Gershon and the APLA leadership for including me in the discussion. I was honored to share the podium with Yolanda Moses and Lee Baker, whose observations about our administrative work I found to be both shrewd and generous. Their insights helped me articulate this advice.


Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld

Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld served as senior associate dean for social sciences and global programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2017 to 2022. He is currently a professor of anthropology at UNC and editor in chief of The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Since 1991, he has written and taught about community economies, artisan production, Indigenous movements, and cultural change in the context of globalization. His publications include Fighting Like a Community: Andean Civil Society in an Era of Indigenous Uprisings (2009) and Fast, Easy and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy (with Jason Antrosio, 2015).

Cite as

Colloredo-Mansfeld, Rudi. 2023. “How to Successfully Adopt an Associate Dean.” Anthropology News website, April 7, 2023.